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Trump downplays Whitaker ties amid criticism

President Donald Trump sought to distance himself from the Justice Department official he just named as acti...

Posted: Nov 10, 2018 4:14 AM
Updated: Nov 10, 2018 4:14 AM

President Donald Trump sought to distance himself from the Justice Department official he just named as acting attorney general in the face of mounting criticism about the legality and propriety of his appointment.

"I don't know Matt Whitaker," Trump said of the new acting attorney general, saying he hired him because he had worked for since-dismissed Attorney General Jeff Sessions. "He was always extremely highly thought of, and he still is. But I didn't know Matt Whitaker. He worked for Attorney General Sessions."

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The President's comments are at odds with the relationship Trump has forged with Whitaker in recent months, even as his opinion of Sessions continued to sour. Whitaker has been at the White House dozens of times, including in meetings with Trump, and the two have spoken by phone on several occasions, including on the day that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was expected to be fired.

And in an October 11 interview on Fox News, Trump made clear he did, in fact, know Whitaker well.

"I can tell you Matt Whitaker's a great guy. I know Matt Whitaker," he said.

Whitaker was not hired as Sessions' chief of staff by virtue of any pre-existing relationship with Sessions, but instead because White House officials believed Whitaker's loyalties would lie at the White House and not with the beleaguered attorney general, sources said.

And over the last year, Whitaker has told friends about his growing relationship with Trump. The President knew that he had played football and the tall, brawny former US attorney fit the image Trump liked, according to people familiar with their conversations, far more than the diminutive Sessions, whom Trump mocked.

"He looks like the kind of guy who sits at the head of a table," a source familiar with the matter said of Whitaker.

Questions arise

Even as he claimed on Friday not to know Whitaker, it was clear Trump maintained an affinity for him, praising his qualifications for the job as he insisted Whitaker was being unfairly maligned.

Some legal scholars -- including George Conway, the husband of Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway -- said they thought Whitaker's appointment is unconstitutional because he is not a Senate-confirmed official. Other critics have slammed Trump's decision to appoint Whitaker as acting attorney general over Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein because the move puts Whitaker in charge of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe, which Whitaker had been publicly critical of.

Trump insisted Friday that he had not spoken with Whitaker about the Mueller investigation.

"I didn't speak to Matt Whitaker about it. I don't know Matt Whitaker," Trump said.

The President's move to distance himself from Whitaker is a familiar refrain Trump has used when associates of his have become embroiled in controversy.

When federal prosecutors targeted his longtime former attorney Michael Cohen, Trump insisted Cohen handled only a "tiny, tiny fraction" of his legal work. Before that, he claimed that his indicted former campaign chairman Paul Manafort worked for him for "a very short period of time." And shortly before ousting his chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, who also helmed his campaign, Trump maintained Bannon "came on very late."

Still, the President praised Whitaker as "very highly thought of" and said that Whitaker is only taking heat because "anybody that works for me, they do a number on him."

"Matt Whitaker is a very smart man, he is a very respected man in the law enforcement community, top of the line," Trump said. "He's acting, I think he'll do a very good job and we'll see what happens."

In an email to Department of Justice staff on Friday, Whitaker vowed to lead "a fair Department with the highest ethical standards, that upholds the rule of law, and seeks justice for all Americans."

Sense of concern

Trump's comments came as a growing sense of concern developed inside the White House over the negative reaction to Whitaker being tapped as the acting chief law enforcement official. Several senior officials said they were surprised by the criticism and believe it could potentially jeopardize his chances to remain in the post if it continues to dominate headlines.

It was not widely known among the staff that he had commented repeatedly on the special counsel's investigation in interviews and on television -- an irony given that Whitaker's TV appearances helped him land his job at the Justice Department and people close to Trump encouraged Whitaker to keep up his TV appearances to draw Trump's attention.

Whitaker was tapped by the White House to serve as Sessions' chief of staff in September 2017, with sources describing then-White House counsel Don McGahn as the person behind the hiring.

McGahn was drawn to Whitaker because he had a stalwart reputation in right-wing legal circles and because the White House wanted someone who was competent, could mind Sessions and could "keep things on the rails" at the Justice Department.

Leonard Leo, the executive vice president of the Federalist Society, said he recommended Whitaker for that post.

"I recommended him and was very supportive of him for chief of staff for very specific reasons," Leo told CNN. "Jeff Sessions needed a reliable conservative, a strong manager, and someone who had credibility who had previously served the department. Whitaker was a very good former US attorney and is a very good manager. He's a no-nonsense, get-it-done kind of guy."

Whitaker and White House chief of staff John Kelly developed a close relationship too. Kelly would often call Whitaker to convey when Trump was unhappy with something at the Justice Department or with Sessions in particular, and another source said Kelly and Whitaker were "cut from the same cloth."

Whitaker also worked to forge a relationship with the President's daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner during trips to the White House, understanding they were key to moving up in Trump's eyes.

George Terwilliger III, a former deputy attorney general who is a Sessions ally and familiar with his senior staff, described Whitaker as a "good lawyer" with "good political skills and instincts" and said he had grown close to the White House.

Terwilliger said Whitaker's position had put him in contact with the White House "where he's held in pretty high regard."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 156868

Reported Deaths: 3851
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto10409104
Hinds10279202
Harrison7313112
Jackson6566128
Rankin5887106
Lee529496
Madison5014107
Forrest389786
Jones369088
Lauderdale3594147
Lafayette338253
Washington3246108
Lamar297850
Oktibbeha252362
Lowndes247064
Bolivar244384
Panola232653
Neshoba2249121
Marshall222851
Leflore208591
Monroe206778
Pontotoc204231
Lincoln197366
Sunflower192655
Warren180258
Tate177751
Union171926
Copiah167940
Pike165359
Yazoo160140
Scott159430
Itawamba157635
Alcorn155628
Pearl River155368
Coahoma152743
Simpson152653
Prentiss151331
Adams144752
Grenada143345
Leake139744
Holmes133461
Covington128639
Tippah128430
George128325
Winston125526
Hancock124341
Wayne121323
Marion119446
Attala119334
Tishomingo112443
Chickasaw109432
Newton108229
Tallahatchie98127
Clay94727
Clarke93653
Jasper85223
Stone80615
Calhoun78713
Walthall77629
Montgomery76926
Carroll74115
Lawrence73814
Smith73216
Yalobusha73128
Noxubee72717
Perry68326
Tunica62619
Greene61522
Jefferson Davis59017
Claiborne58916
Amite56615
Humphreys54719
Benton50018
Quitman5007
Webster46714
Kemper45018
Wilkinson40522
Jefferson37112
Choctaw3617
Franklin3555
Sharkey32417
Issaquena1204
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 252900

Reported Deaths: 3638
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson33526501
Mobile20103365
Madison13723151
Tuscaloosa13366154
Montgomery12552236
Shelby1079677
Baldwin9051137
Lee787266
Morgan696451
Calhoun6598121
Etowah656167
Marshall647357
Houston541038
DeKalb498137
Cullman462443
St. Clair441956
Limestone440445
Lauderdale426754
Elmore421164
Walker3735111
Talladega370157
Jackson340423
Colbert332042
Blount306140
Autauga281842
Franklin257434
Coffee250015
Dale239054
Dallas231532
Chilton228939
Russell22663
Covington225034
Escambia202331
Tallapoosa187291
Chambers182750
Pike161514
Clarke161019
Marion144736
Winston137523
Lawrence133436
Pickens126518
Geneva12508
Marengo123424
Bibb120418
Barbour118911
Butler118642
Randolph105522
Cherokee105124
Hale98131
Fayette94616
Washington93219
Clay92824
Henry8896
Monroe83011
Lowndes80929
Cleburne78814
Macon75522
Crenshaw72230
Bullock70119
Lamar7018
Conecuh70014
Perry6916
Wilcox64818
Sumter58622
Greene43518
Choctaw43114
Coosa3664
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